Confessions is a series of essays on personal experiences and intimate issues, many of which have been kept secret for so long. By sharing these previously confidential accounts, we explore our own mental health without judgment and the various ways we cope, with the hope that it makes it a little lighter of a burden for us to carry. It's also a reminder that no matter how odd or unique these experiences can be, someone can relate to it – and we are not alone.
People go to Church to find peace and answers but until I was 23 years old, stepping into one just gave me dread and more questions. For years, every time I looked at the huge crucifix at the centre of the altar, my mind was immediately flooded with graphic images of sex.
Turning my gaze away to either side made it worse because standing there were statues of saints that spiked even more similar thoughts. The same thing happened when I looked at other churchgoers or closed my eyes. Out of guilt, I would spend the hour-long mass asking myself where the thoughts came from, questioning what type of person I was, wondering if there was something wrong with me – but there was never an answer.
Lining up to receive communion every week was like walking through hellfire because I was sure that my evil, blasphemous mind deserved eternal damnation. Back in our pews with my hands and head shaking, I would pray for all of it to be over. It never did.
I grew to dread Sundays because that meant having to face all of it again. Weekdays weren’t much better because my mind was a monster that didn’t pick or choose when to attack. A scene from a movie, a line from a book, or a conversation with a friend could launch the most pornographic images.
Whenever this happened, whether I was at home, school, or work, I would go to the bathroom and just stand there riddled with guilt, trying to convince myself that I didn’t just think whatever disgusting, inhumane, or distressing thought it was that popped into my head. But the more I worried, the more intrusive the thoughts became.
I’ve been carrying these thoughts around like a backpack filled with rocks since I was at least 6 years old. Warm memories of school lunches and family vacations come with echoes of unwanted images that bashed my head like lightning bolts. Summers in grade school were the worst. I was never involved in any summer classes or camps so it was two months of staying home at a time when the internet came in prepaid cards.
With nothing to do and no one to talk to, I spent the whole day feeling guilty and looking back on years worth of thoughts and actions to check how many bad ones I’ve had. A split second of judging a stranger for their looks or cheating in my homework felt like a mortal sin.
My OCD only ever “went to sleep” whenever my parents assured me that I was a good person or when I tried really hard to distract myself, but it always, always came back. I would have five good years then two really bad ones. The trigger was different for every relapse and it was the worst in my last year of college.
I questioned every little thing I said, did, or thought and went to bed crying, then running to my parents’ room for answers.
The solace I got from their encouraging words only lasted a few minutes. Eventually, I would get sucked into the black hole again. I was desperate to know what was wrong with me. Why was I having these thoughts? Was I a pervert? What would people think if they found out?
Then, one night, I finally got the answer.
I had known that I had a “scrupulous conscience” since I was 12, after learning about it in religion class. That’s when you fear that something is a sin when it actually is not. But sins can be relative, even within the rules of my Catholic faith, and that was the problem. In my desire to never think bad thoughts, I was bombarded with the worst ones.
I Googled “scrupulosity” that night and learned something I’ve never encountered before — that it’s a form of Pure O OCD, or when you experience obsessive, unwanted thoughts, except unlike OCD as most of us know it, this form had no visible compulsions or rituals.
I felt alone in my suffering for years but as I read the symptoms and accounts from people around the world, I realised that I was not alone at all. Many of the stories I found were almost exactly like what I was going through. My sexual thoughts at church, it turned out, were very common in the Pure O community. I instantly felt relieved, like I could breathe properly for the first time in two decades.
Having OCD never occurred to me because the only image of the disorder I had was from the TV show Monk. In pop culture, OCD is nothing more than a fear of germs or a penchant for symmetry. My OCD is invisible and comes with a constant feeling of worry and guilt.
I continued to research about Pure O and found that it comes in many forms. Some obsess over unwanted sexual thoughts like paedophilia or incest. Others doubt their sexual orientation or see images of self-harm. I jumped back and forth between different obsessions like these for years and realised that they were all linked to one fear: what if I’m a bad person?
Guilt is a common compulsion for people with Pure O. Compulsions are repetitive behaviours that a person with OCD does in response to their obsessions. So while others can’t stop themselves from washing their hands, I could not stop myself from feeling guilty – even when I had done nothing wrong. Other Pure O compulsions include seeking reassurance from people and researching for answers, two things I did endlessly.
The more Pure O stories I read, the better I got at handling my condition. One night, I stumbled upon the diary of – of all people – a French saint who is highly venerated by Catholics. I found out that she had the scruples too.
“All my most simple thoughts and actions became the cause of trouble for me, and I had relief only when I told them to [my sister] Marie. This cost me dearly, for I believed I was obliged to tell her the absurd thoughts I had even about her,” St. Therese of Lisieux wrote in her autobiography. “As soon as I laid down the burden, I experienced peace for an instant, but this peace passed away like a lightning flash, and soon my martyrdom began over again.”
There I was, reading about a girl from the 1800s who went through the exact same thing I was going through. She summed up the experience perfectly. If a saint had bad thoughts like me, I’m probably not evil, I thought.
As a young girl who grew up with the strict teachings of the Catholic Church, it was easy to blame it on Catholic guilt — I sometimes do — especially because St. Ignatius and St. Alphonsus Liguori have similar accounts. But I soon discovered it was beyond that, and as I sought more information about it, I learned that people from other religions battle it too.
I eventually learned to manage my thoughts by listing them all down. On my notes app, I wrote everything I was obsessing over and only allowed myself to read them at the end of the day. This helped convince the OCD part of my brain that I’ll still be accountable for my “faults” but stopped me from thinking about them for an entire day.
It freed me up, especially when my intrusive thoughts were close to 10 different ones on repeat. Time away from my obsessions cleared my mind and allowed me to see them for what they truly were. Eventually, I stopped listing them down and learned to distinguish real thoughts from intrusive ones instantly.
This is not always easy because my OCD continues to manifest in other parts of my life. Up until last year, I would beat myself up every time I missed a workout or ate too much during dinner, fearing that one slip up would make me fat. Failing to do a work task I had listed in my notebook still causes me to spiral. And then there are days I just have a deep existential longing. It’s a constant struggle but if I didn’t know that they were just new obsessions, I would probably spend the entire day ruminating about them. Now, I know to shrug them off.
I kept my OCD a secret because I didn’t want to use my condition as an excuse for distressing others. It is unclear how common my type of OCD is either, because of the precise reason that many fear sharing their thoughts with anyone, at the risk of being judged for such taboo ideas. But if stumbling upon St. Therese’s diary taught me anything, it’s that sharing my story about an invisible suffering might also help others feel seen.
My mind was the scariest place, a forest full of frightening scenes I couldn’t escape. It was invisible to the world, but it was anything but that to me. Above all, my Pure O taught me that every person is struggling with something. Even when we can’t see it.
*Writer's name has been changed upon their request.